by Martha Magruder
By the time she was 26 years old, Dawn Rochow Balden Seymour had logged 700 hours in the Boeing B -17 "Flying Fortress" and was training young gunners in preparation for D-Day and war in the Pacific. Just a few years earlier, the ambitious 22-year old native of Rochester, NY, who had never stepped foot on a plane, graduated from Cornell University’s College of Home Economics and was hired as an instructor at the school. While volunteering in a research study, she was approached by Dr. Richard Parmenter, a veteran WWI pilot who saw her potential and asked if she was interested in Cornell's new Civilian Pilot Training program (CPT) and not long after, he took her for her first plane ride. She recalled, “So he took me up in a yellow [Piper] Cub on an October day when, of course, the leaves have turned, and suddenly the world is completely different. There's a sense of freedom. I was hooked with this love of flying.”
Seymour became the first woman pilot accepted into the CPT, “one out of every ten—nine men, one woman—was acceptable,” and in 1940, she earned her private pilot’s license. December 1941 brought about America’s involvement in World War II and Seymour found herself working for the New York State War Council on the same committee as Eleanor Roosevelt. Seymour, however, wanted to do more for the war effort: "I wanted to serve my country in a very active way.” In March 1943, she applied and was accepted to Jackie Cochran’s WASP program. “I was on the sidewalk and I flipped a nickel. Heads, I go that month, or, tails, I stay home [and get more flying time]. And it was heads. So I quit my job...And I joined the class of '43-5.”
Training took place at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Seymour recalled a rigorous five months of “getting up and falling in line, going to breakfast, going to the flight line, going to ground school and to link training." Jackie Cochran presented Seymour with her wings on graduation day, September 11, 1943. “The wings were cold, though it was a ninety degree day, and I said to myself, oh my goodness, I did it! It was a wonderful feeling of accomplishment.”
Though the WASP remained on home soil, they were by no means out of harm’s way. Seymour remembered, “Ten days before I graduated, my best friend, my buddy, Peggy Seip, was killed with her instructor and a fellow WASP pilot, and no reason was given for the accident. There was no ceremony held, they just disappeared. And it was a heart wrenching event….And Peggy had left a garden, the only garden any WASP had ever grown in Sweetwater, Texas, and it bloomed on our graduation day.”
Upon graduation, Seymour was sent to the Second Ferrying Command in Wilmington, Delaware and after just two weeks there, she completed ground school and checked out in the PT-19. Soon after, she transferred to Lockbourne Army Air Base in Columbus, Ohio where, after more rigorous training, she became one of only thirteen WASP, known as the “Lucky Thirteen” chosen to pilot the B-17. Seymour subsequently relocated to Buckingham Army Air Field at Fort Myers, Florida where she flew gunnery missions in the B-17 F/G and towed targets in the AT-23. She trained gunners, mostly very young men no more than eighteen or nineteen years old, and who had never been in the air. During those training missions, Seymour piloted the plane towing the target or “sleeve,” for the trainees to shoot at with live ammunition. She recalled, “Sometimes I'd see tracers in the B-17 going toward the plane, the B-26, and you'd put on the mike and say, "The sleeve, guys! Aim at the sleeve!"”
In early 1944, Seymour transferred to Roswell, New Mexico, to fly more training missions. In December of that year she and her fellow WASP received the devastating letter from General Hap Arnold notifying them of the disbandment of the WASP program. “The message we received was, 'Girls, go home, we don't need you anymore.'" The women immediately packed up their things and without ceremony or fanfare, departed the military lifestyle they’d grown accustomed to and returned to their former lives. It would take 33 years for the United States government to officially recognize them as military veterans.
In 1982, five years after the WASP received military veteran status, Dawn Seymour was elected President of the WASP organization. She made it her mission to share the WASP story with the world. To commemorate the lives of those lost, she authored a book titled, IN MEMORIAM: Thirty-eight WAFS/WASP who gave their lives during training and service. Seymour campaigned for Jackie Cochran's induction into the National Women's Hall of Fame and for ten years she worked tirelessly for a U.S. postal stamp honoring Cochran, which finally made its debut in 1996. In 2005, Seymour was awarded the Keeper of the Flame award by the National Women's Hall of Fame.
Dawn Seymour strove to inspire women to pursue their dreams and proved a gifted speaker and storyteller as she shared her memories of of the WASP and WWII with audiences around the country. She was extremely proud to have had the opportunity to fly and serve her country while doing it. “We were volunteers going in, and we were volunteers going out, and our motto was, “We live in the wind and the sand, and our eyes are on the stars.””
On July 18, 2017, Dawn Seymour passed away at the age of 100. Tributes poured in and fueled the American public's growing interest in the WASP. Given her unwavering resolve during her lifetime to share the WASP stories and preserve their legacy, Seymour would no doubt have been proud that even in death she was able to carry out that mission.
During a 1999 interview with Rebecca Wright for the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project, Seymour was asked how she'd sum up the contributions and sacrifices of the WASP:
"So I think my advice, as you asked me before, what difference -- what were the WASPs and what was their meaning in this particular time? And I think it is they listened to a voice inside that urges each one of us--we each had this--urges us to try. Find a way. You do the hard work. And I think that's my message."
Dawn Seymour's service to her country and contribution to changing the course of history, especially for women, will forever inspire and influence generations to come.